The NGV Collection of British eighteenth-century paintings has long been recognised as one of its greatest strengths. Its quality, breadth and depth are such that a leading expert on British art once admiringly claimed that he could teach the story of British painting of the period just by guiding his students through the dozens of important works hanging on the Gallery’s walls. With two artists in particular, Joseph Wright of Derby and Joseph Highmore, the NGV owns something unique: brilliant self-portraits by each artist, along with informal portraits of their children that were intended for their private enjoyment. It was Victoria’s good fortune that later descendants of both painters migrated to Australia with their respective family portraits, settled here in Melbourne – and in time generously donated their collections to the NGV. Joseph Highmore made portraits of both his son Anthony and his daughter Susanna. Susanna’s portrait (c.1740) is one of the most eye-catching paintings in the Collection due to her confident glance towards the viewer and the richness of the visual details that come from the unique perspective of a loving father. From a technical standpoint the portrait is very typical of its time and origin. It is painted on a linen canvas and features a range of pigments that were commonly in use during the eighteenth century. Recent examination and x-radiography have revealed one or two features which give us some insight into how the portrait evolved. There are both minor and major changes evident. One of the small adjustments concerns the scrapbook resting on the Queen Anne side-table. It appears that it originally had another sheet of paper on top, or possibly a different design of the lady’s clothing.
However, the most significant changes made by the artist are in the background. If we look at the area to the left and right of the face, we can make out shadow-forms in the radiographic image that do not correspond with the background of the finished portrait. In particular, there is a dark shape on the left which looks somewhat like the side of a building, suggesting that Highmore may have started with the idea of an external background.
Another discovery was made when the surface of the painting was examined under a microscope. It revealed that the blazing red drapery behind Susanna has an underlying layer of dark blue-grey, consisting mostly of Prussian Blue, a synthetic pigment that came into wide usage in the first half of the eighteenth century. It appears that Highmore originally planned for Susanna to be standing before a dark blue curtain – something similar to what we see in the digitally modified image below. For some reason he was dissatisfied with the appearance, so he repainted it in bright red using the traditional pigment vermilion. In making the background curtain red, Highmore was reverting to a popular mode of presentation that had its origins in Venetian portraiture of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century and was later adopted by British painters, following the example set by both Rubens and van Dyck. Looking back and forth between the blue and red versions of the curtain we can see how colour choices can have a huge impact on the overall effect and mood of the portrait and even the way we perceive the subject. It could be that the original darker blue appeared too subdued for Susanna’s personality, that he wanted to create greater visual contrast, or that he simply wanted to create more chromatic harmony with the other passages of red in the painting. Whatever his reasons, it certainly represented a bold final change which succeeded in grabbing the attention of the viewer.
Carl Villis is Senior Paintings Conservator at NGV.